Sludge produces investigative journalism on lobbying and money in politics. The American Prospect is re-publishing this article.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, a fossil fuel industry PAC favorite and partial owner of a coal business, has been a leading opponent of climate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a foe of environmental legislation. But in July, he led his committee to authorize $11.3 billion in new funding for abandoned mine land (AML) reclamation projects, an environmentalist-backed fund that will help coal-country communities clean up polluted sites in their neighborhoods, and he got the money included in the Senate-passed infrastructure bill.
“We applaud Senator Manchin for acting to restore our damaged lands and waters as a way to ensure national investment strategies emphasize the economic revitalization of coal country,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, upon the bill’s introduction in April.
While environmentalists say the funding is good for the region, it may also be good for Sen. Manchin’s bank account.
A big part of most AML projects is the removal of piles of gob, coal refuse that has been left behind at old mine sites and is typically mixed with bits of rock, shale, clay and other debris and mounded into massive piles. The pile sites can span hundreds acres and can have devastating impacts on the land and surrounding watersheds. They can also catch fire and burn for years, emitting greenhouse gases and heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, and creating underground cavities that make fighting them dangerous. As Power has reported, “Refuse mounds, toxic to plant life, are barren and therefore highly erosive. Unstable coal refuse piles can collapse, becoming potential disasters. And bituminous piles, in particular, can leach concentrated levels of acid mine drainage.”
Since Congress created the AML program in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, gob piles throughout the country have begun being re-mined and processed, and then sold to special power plants that are equipped with fluidized bed boilers to burn the low-grade material and convert it to electricity. In West Virginia, there is just one power plant that buys reclaimed gob coal—American Bituminous Power Partners’ (AmBit) 80-megawatt plant located near Grant Town, which supplies power to Monongahela Power Company, a subsidiary of First Energy.
The Manchin family’s waste coal brokerage business, Enersystems, has a waste fuel service agreement with AmBit to supply the Grant Town plant with processed gob that lasts until March 2021, and as of a 2017 document it managed waste coal projects at three sites owned by AmBit on a material handling contract that was initiated in 1999 and is renewed on 5-year extensions. If the new billions in extra AML funding becomes law, Enersystems is positioned to see a spike in its business as AmBit and other companies take up new mine reclamation projects in West Virginia. Enersystems could benefit if AmBit takes on more of its own AML projects or from other companies that receive AML grants and free up more gob for the company to sell to AmBit under its waste fuel services contract.
Enersystems was founded by Sen. Manchin in 1988 and is now run by his son. Since joining the Senate, Manchin has been paid more than $4.5 million by the company in which he owns shares that he says in his most recent annual financial disclosure are worth between $1 million and $5 million. Last year, the company paid him nearly $500,000. AmBit’s Grant Town plant has been the only recipient of Enersystems’ coal sales to power plants since 2008, according to The Intercept’s review of U.S. Energy Information Agency and the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.
According to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as of 2020 there were at least 140,355 acres of unfunded AML problem areas in West Virginia. Cleaning up those sites would cost nearly $2 billion, according to the committee. The $11.3 billion in new AML project funding is currently sitting in the House, where Democratic leaders are pursuing a two-track approach that links the Senate’s infrastructure bill with passage of the reconciliation package of new spending and tax measures that is currently being developed.
Although cleaning up abandoned mine sites may be beneficial for the people who live near them, burning waste coal taken from the sites may also be worse for the air and human health than burning coal from traditional sources. The Grant Town plant produces more sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide per unit of energy output than any other coal plant in the state, according to Vice’s reporting on 2018 calculations from Jim Kotcon of the West Virginia Sierra Club.
“There’s no doubt that West Virginia needs the mineland reclamation funding that the senator is pushing for, reclaiming old sites,” Kotcon told Sludge. “The issue is that burning the gob creates pollution from the plant, which hopefully is better controlled than the spontaneous burning of gob piles, and it is not always clear that the land and streams really do see a net benefit. Add in the greenhouse gas emissions and increasing price competition from renewables, and we conclude that a land reclamation approach is preferable to burning the gob.”
While Manchin pushed forward this program from which he may profit, he has also worked to kill legislation that could harm his business and those of his donors in the fossil fuel industry. He is currently working to revise President Biden’s proposed clean electricity standard, currently being debated in Congress’ reconciliation package, that would require power companies to gradually increase their renewable energy sources until they are no longer emitting carbon dioxide. Under a $150 billion fund in the reconciliation bill, the government would pay companies that clean up their electricity supply and fine those that miss deadlines. Manchin recently said on CNN that power companies are already on course to renewable energy due to market forces and that the fund “makes no sense at all.” According to The New York Times, Manchin’s version is expected to have less ambitious clean energy standards and provide rewards to companies that build new natural gas powered-plants.